By consent

Round-up: Police and people need to have trust in one another or policing with consent is lost, and with it, security in our society. This is the short read of this rather rambling post. I know what I want to say but can’t quite work out how to say it (at least, not in under 800 words). I think I am saying that if the police alienate their natural supporters (and there are swathes of people from outside that group who are already alienated with or without just reason) it means that parts of the force doesn’t care what people think about it and that is undermining for society and for democracy. This is not, happily, an essay

One of the reasons I took to studying politics was that I couldn’t work why those with brute force don’t control our society. In general, if threatened with physical violence by someone bigger or better armed, it seems only sensible to do as told. If that message needed reinforcing, looking down at the twin tunnels of a sawn -off shotgun pressed against my ribs, during a bank raid in Blackheath many years ago, convinced me not to debate the point when ordered to move to a particular spot along with the other quaking patrons of the Nat West.

In due course I went to the Department of Continuing Education at Oxford University that teaches part-time, external courses with the same rigour as every other academic endeavour is undertaken at Oxford. And rigorous academic tutors taught us about social contracts and rationality, about formal logic and ideologies. About democracy and philosophy, about Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and about the tyranny of the masses and lots more beside. And they set exams which we dressed for in our black and white. On my way to a scant 2:1 I found myself so nervous that during French politics I had to leave the exam room to throw up. The experience of heaving into a lavatory under the watchful eye of an examiner in full academic dress is one that I hope never to repeat and I am as certain as it is possible to be, that she feels the same.

This week, the street protests against the lifting of the cap on university fees, turned very nasty. And whilst there were certainly trouble makers infiltrating the genuine and peaceful demonstrators, there have been many stories of heavy handed treatment by the police. Young people “kettled” – that is, rounded up and refused exit for any reason (illness, youth, dehydration or toilet needs). There have been reports of police with faces covered with scarves or with helmets and with their numbers hidden.

Photo: Charlotte Gilhooly, G20 protest London, UK

I was brought up with possibly an exaggerated respect for the police and when I was a student nurse would often appreciate a lift home in a squad car after a late shift. That was punctured for me one night when, as the senior nurse on duty on our ward, I had to call the police to interview a young woman who had been admitted having taken a large number of aspirin after being raped by a man who offered her a lift and who afterwards dumped her miles from home. From the moment that the (female) officer barked down the phone that we mustn’t allow her to wash and that they’d get to her when they could, I was wary. When two male officers arrived and asked for “the girl who’s saying she’s been raped” I was on edge. I asked them to treat my highly fragile patient with care as she was emotionally extremely fragile (and physically too – aspirin interferes with the heart). Six foot of male policeman looked at 5 foot 5 of little Miss Goody Goody, dressed in the white cap, collar and apron and full skirted dress of a nurse of the times and asked, with clear contempt “So who’s going to make me? You?” Gathering whatever hauteur was available to a 24 year old I remember replying “yes, if necessary”. Later he told me that my patient had, indeed, been raped but they had persuaded her not to report it because the court case, should it come about, would be so terrible that the better option would be to forget about it.

When I told my parents and family about it, they could not – or would not believe what I had said. They suggested that I was mistaken, that I hadn’t understood what the police officer had said.

That was an age ago. It was Life on Mars. Since then I have met police officers who are highly intelligent, sensitive, sensible and brave and a real example to others. They do really a really difficult job so that we don’t have to. But nonetheless, I have never looked at the police with the same unquestioning respect since.

So, once our forces start behaving in a way that alienates the law-respecting and usually law-abiding middle ranks of society it seems as if there are parts of the force who don’t feel any need to keep them on-side. If the decent students exercising a democratic right are lumped in with the trouble makers in the eyes of police and politicians, there will be problems. I thought way back then that if I, an epitome of middle-class respectability, could be treated like that, on my own ward, then how would the black community I lived and worked with in Brixton and Camberwell be treated? Once trust has been lost, it is immensely difficult to recover. My middle-class parents may not have believed me but the parents of students who went to demonstrate in an orderly, almost festive fashion on the streets and who came home scared, cold and possibly hurt will make up their own minds.

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